Time to punish bad behavior

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”

By Marty Rochester

O.J. is free again.

As a society we seem to tolerate and even encourage bad behavior. Our major institutions, such as public schools and government, do not do a very effective job of using rewards to incentivize good behavior and punishments to dis-incentivize bad behavior. 

We can debate the relative merits of using rewards and punishments as tools to influence conduct, whether in parenting, the justice system, or other areas of human endeavor. Rewards today are handed out indiscriminately, while punishments tend to be scarce.

To the extent that carrots and sticks are employed as behavior modification techniques, the former are much more in vogue than the latter, as positive reinforcement is viewed as far superior to negative sanctions.  From Dr. Spock disciples to character education gurus to penologists, experts on human behavior seem punishment-averse. 

The no-spanking philosophy of child-rearing has morphed into a no-consequences culture generally. There is the self-esteem driven “trophy” syndrome in school and little league sports that rewards the slightest accomplishment. The reluctance to penalize poor performance extends now to college, where “the customer is always right,” “everyone is a critical thinker” and “coddling” paradigms combine to produce ever-increasing grade inflation.

The ultimate example of our punishment-averse mindset is the growing “deincarceration” call to release inmates from prisons on the twin assumption that sentences are too harsh and jails only produce more hardened criminals. The once ballyhooed “broken windows” theory of policing, which prescribed zero tolerance for accepting even the most minor infractions, has gone out the window, a victim of the post-Ferguson demonization of law enforcement. Where once we tried to internalize the norm that it is wrong to jump subway turnstiles, the new norm is it is wrong to lock up folks who steal and reveal 750,000 classified, highly sensitive national security documents. 

Is it possible we are devaluing punishment as a way to help shape behavior that benefits both the individual and society? We constantly hear about research claiming punishment does not “work.” Yet, speaking for myself, when I was driving on Highway 40 recently and saw a sign warning “Hit A Worker — Pay $10,000 Fine and Lose License,” it got me to slow down. I doubt I was the only motorist so impacted. 

It got me to thinking, why don’t we put up signs on the roadway warning “Get your high school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have kids, or else you have a high probability of ending up poor?”  Even more incentivizing, how about a sign that says “Put marriage before the baby carriage, and you will have an 86 percent chance of having an income in the middle or top third of all incomes?”

These data are based on numerous empirical studies done by both liberal and conservative research organizations, such as the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, which conclude that, if one were to follow a relatively simple sequence of behaviors, poverty could be virtually eliminated. (See George Will, “Listen Up, Millennials, There’s Sequence to Success,” Washington Post, July 5.) 

But instead of sending a message to young people that bad life choices have consequences, our leading institutions excuse such behavior as rooted in poverty and addressable through massive welfare programs. 

This is not rocket science. It is common sense, backed by science. The same folks on the left who criticize Donald Trump as (being morally flawed and anti-scientific) are in no position to throw stones themselves. They have contributed to the collapse of the norms Will and others celebrate, as liberal media such as The New York Times are at best nonjudgmental about marriage and having kids out of wedlock and at worst question — and thus undermine the institution — of matrimony and “family values.” And they ignore the substantial science behind the “sequencing” hypothesis. 

We have no problem growing the “nanny state” when it comes to education campaigns and laws relating to climate change, seat belt safety, labeling of cigarette packages, anti-bullying, multicultural competency, and other such issues. Is it too politically incorrect to hammer away, also, at the themes suggested above, at a time when the Pew Research Center reports “the share of Americans who are married is at its lowest point since at least 1920” and the out-of-wedlock birthrate is roughly 50 percent?  

The larger matter here is that social justice and compassion, which are wonderful aspects of Judaism, must be joined with some sense of personal responsibility, which has been lost along the way. Granted, some people have more choices than others. Nonetheless, we all have choices.

A good place to start is in the schools. There is a big movement in schools today to teach “the whole child,” that is, to cater to not just the academic but also social-emotional needs of students. “Grit” is the latest educationist buzzword, referring to developing one’s capacity for self-control, delayed gratification, persistence, and resilience. However, it is not clear how such qualities can be cultivated in a no-consequences environment. 

Many schools no longer allow students to get a failing grade, which means students rarely have to test their coping mechanisms. As a result, on those occasions when they are faced with adversity, they get stressed easily and can experience serious mental health problems, a growing reality widely reported by school counselors at every level. 

Of course, poverty, mental illness, crime, and other problems are complicated and defy simple solutions. One modest proposal is that, from the cradle to the grave, we give a little more love to the first half of the “tough-love” equation. Each of us and the society as a whole will be the better for it.